Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life is exactly what it claims. Its multiple plots center around the inhabitants of a fictitious Midlands town and their evolving relationships to each other. It is critical of social class, ambition and marriage, and religion. It is commonly considered one of the masterpieces of English writing, and Virginia Woolf described it as "the magnificent book that, with all its imperfections, is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people".
This is a book where in every character, from noble, ardent, innocent Dorothea to self-absorbed, shallow Rosamond; from the generous high principles of Lydgate to the blind self-deception of Bulstrode, we can see shades and echoes of ourselves. Eliot is not merely holding a mirror up to our lives, she is presenting us with a distillation of the parts of ourselves we don't even realise are there, until we read about them in her characters with a faint shock of recognition. It's a constant wonder to me, how George Eliot can have known so much about people - how she can have known so much about me in things I never knew before must be universal.
Such is her depth of understanding of people that she doesn't point out people's faults wittily, like Jane Austen; nor even present them as a quiet tragedy, like Kazuo Ishiguro (both of whom give wonderful insights into the way people tick). All her characters, even the worst of them (with the possible exception of Raffles), she paints with the kind of compassion that only comes with a full understanding of why they are the way they are, and the complexity of motive, thought and feeling behind even the worst acts. Also the commonplace acts, and the noble acts, and the acts that would have been noble, but failed.
Eliot shows us the tragedy of commonplace things - the silence instead of the right word spoken, the good intentions that go wrong, the misinterpretation of someone's words or actions, the harsh words spoken in the night. She shows us, as W.L. Collins says in his contemporary review at the back of The Modern Library edition, that "It is better to fail than succeed, if the aim has been noble in one case, and mean in the other." It's a novel of failures in many respects, yet leaves us with the impression that to fail in a worthy cause is a worthwhile thing to do.
Physically, this is written on a small scale - we never leave provincial Middlemarch, except on a brief honeymoon to Rome. But such is the vastness of the human soul, that the true landscape of this book is enormous. The complexities of every character's life interweave with each other, each link in the chain affecting all the others - and there is no feeling of contrivance or artificiality, even in the end, though some might argue with that. Everything, once it happens, seems inevitable, because it was done by that person, for the multitude of reasons that makes them the way they are.
This is a frustrating 'review' to write - there is too much to say, and never have my words seemed so inadequate. In brief then, this is the book I will compare all others to in future - my personal gold standard of literature.
The action of the novel takes places from 1829 to 1832, about 40 years before the writing of the novel. This was a time of great change in England that must have been very disorienting—the Catholic Emancipation in 1829, the death of George IV in 1830, the spread of the railways, the outbreak of cholera in 1832, and the domestic unrest leading up to the First Reform Act of 1832 (the novel closes in the spring of 1832—the Act was passed in the summer).
Against this backdrop of uneasy change we find a number of characters who yearn to do great things, though they don’t all know exactly what, and to establish a sense of order and meaning in their lives and the world around them. Mr. Casaubon works on his “Key to All Mythologies,” a scholarly volume which will elucidate the universal principles that lie behind all religions; Tertius Lydgate wants to find “the one primitive tissue” that makes up all living things; Dorothea wants to find a way to connect her life in the present with the great scholars of the past, and to connect here and now with people who need help. In reading of their quests, I was reminded of a dear professor who used to speak of a search for unity (in all its various guises—we were speaking of music theory) in connection with a search for God and ultimate meaning. This is the feeling that I get when I read about the characters’ struggles, and when Dorothea tells Will, “I have always been finding out my religion since I was a little girl.”
None, I daresay, of the characters reach the true heights of the good that they want to do in the world. Very few of us do. But in Middlemarch, this doesn’t come off as tragedy. George Eliot, describing herself, said that she was neither an optimist, nor a pessimist, but a “meliorist.” She believed that humans were making progress toward a better, more equal society, and that the world could be improved through human action. Though our (and their) individual lives may not seem to add up to much, Eliot writes of Dorothea, “…The effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” I find this to be a great consolation.
I’ve tried and so far failed to wrap my head around the structure of the novel. But I can say that the whole thing appears to be a big, criss-crossing web of relationships. Any given character can be tied to most of the other characters in the novel—sometimes practically all of them. The “diffusive” effect that Eliot describes in speaking of Dorothea applies to the other characters as well; a single action often travels along the threads of the web and affects multiple characters. The idea of unity is expressed by making each character and group a part of a greater whole.
Eliot clarifies the moral aspect of each individual as a single part of a whole by juxtaposing selfless characters against self-centered characters. The finest characters in the novel are fine not because they are perfect, but because they are clear-eyed about themselves and sympathetic toward others. The characters who suffer most often bring their pain on themselves through their egoism and lack of self-perception. One character is so egoistic that she can’t imagine that she is ever in the wrong; another character believes that God Himself sanctions all his actions and breaks into a panic (with drastic moral consequences) when it appears that his moral failings may be revealed to the town. Dorothea and Edward Casaubon’s marriage is ruined in great part because of his fear that she is inwardly criticizing him and his jealousy of another man; as well, he has lived by and for himself for so long that once he marries Dorothea, he finds that he simply doesn’t have room for her in his life. The tragedy of this marriage is all the more maddening because Mr. Casaubon so needlessly drives a stake between himself and Dorothea—you sense that if he could just get outside of himself, the troubles would be over.
Speaking of marriages, I very much enjoyed reading about the different marriages in Middlemarch. The novel doesn’t end in weddings, like so much 19th century Brit Lit—the weddings are only the beginning, and then the real work happens. The marriages aren’t all bad, either; for one, I found very much to admire in Mr. and Mrs. Garth’s marriage. They complement each other well; they accept each other’s faults cheerfully, and they never speak ill of each other to their neighbors. The Garths, including their daughter Mary, may well be my favorite characters in the novel. (But it’s so hard to choose!)
Middlemarch ranks with Les Misérables as the finest moral fiction I’ve read. When Dorothea speaks of finding out her religion, she says that the belief that comforts her is this: “That by desiring what is perfectly good, even when we don't quite know what it is and cannot do what we would, we are part of the divine power against evil--widening the skirts of light and making the struggle with darkness narrower." Later, she will say, “What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult to each other?” The self-examination and struggle for meaning that many of the characters go through is truly inspiring, and there’s much to learn from this novel. Eliot writes during one scene (bless the intrusive narrator!), “Some one highly susceptible to the contemplation of a fine act has said, that it produces a sort of regenerating shudder through the frame, and makes one feel ready to begin a new life.” Fred Vincy felt it, and so did I. And Eliot’s finely-tuned and finely-timed sympathy always shows up just when you are ready to pronounce a final judgment on a character—just as you’re about to say, what a bad guy!, her intrusive narrator intervenes and says, but hey, look at what he has going on inside him—don’t you sympathize?—and really, are you sure that you’re the one to judge him? Don’t you do the very same thing sometimes? And you have to say, well, by gum, I do.
And to add to all the above (seriously, if you haven’t read this novel, just stop reading my review and go read Middlemarch instead!), there is a magic to George Eliot that transcends character and plot. Just one example: each chapter has its own epigram. One chapter is preceded by a lovely bit of verse (written by Eliot) describing the sympathetic resonance of a bell. To determine the pitch of a bell, Eliot explains, one need not strike it directly; one can instead play a flute into the bell, and when it hits the right pitch, the bell will vibrate in unison with it. The chapter then describes how one character ends up falling with another quite instantly. He has up to this point flirted with her but resisted any serious attachment; but at the falling of her tears, his heart is touched, and it “[shakes] flirtation into love.” I read this scene with the idea of the sympathetic resonance in mind, and the power, the thrilling awe and beauty of the integrated experience has been burned into my brain forever.
Read Middlemarch. Read it now.
Described as a novel of provincial life in early 1830s England, Middlemarch is a rich, character-laden, sprawling, epic novel that explores the themes of education, class, self-delusion, and the imperfection of marriage and, most importantly, I think, the changing role of women. At the heart of the novel: marriage, in all its various forms. Because its scope is so grand, Middlemarch presents a real challenge to review. At 800 pages, divided into 8 Books and 87 chapters it almost calls for each Book to be reviewed individually, an impossibility.
Miss Brooke, Dorothea, has her own opinions on the subjects of both marriage and the role of women in society. She is a strong, independent young woman born in the wrong century. She is not interested in a vapid young man, wealthy though he is. She chooses, instead, to marry Mr. Casaubon, many years older than she but with an intellectual capacity that she believes will allow her to grow as well. She realizes, too late, that he is more caught up in his own narrow view of things than in sharing this life with Dorothea, whom he really considers to be a secretary. She, on the other hand, is an idealist who wants to enrich her world:
“By desiring what is perfectly good, even when we don’t quite know what it is and cannot do what we would, we are part of the divine power against evil---widening the skirts of light and making the struggle with darkness narrower.” (Page 374)
Eliot exposes the powerful class struggle at this time in England’s history and the early beginnings of the middle class. Certainly the proper English young lady preferred to marry a member of the landed gentry, but we also see Miss Rosamond Vincy marry the newly arrived young doctor, and her undisciplined but kind-hearted brother Fred accept a reduction in class in order to marry the woman he loved, who insisted he become a responsible wage-earner.
It’s Eliot’s rich character development that allows her to expound on her complex themes. She exposes the English upper crust to be dreadfully greedy and ambitious through these delightfully full characters. Even the names she gives them tells us a lot about them: Rev. Farebrother, Mrs. Cadwallader, Mr. Featherstone, Mr. Raffles are all so descriptive. Not a one-dimensional character within the 800 pages. And these characters think. Brilliant!
Eliot makes use of the literary device known as authorial intervention and it can take you by surprise because it’s not something modern writers make much use of. But, quite regularly, Eliot would insert her own thought and opinions into the story making you stop and think, “What was that?” However, after a few of these you instead say to yourself, “Oh, she’s so right about that.”
Wonderful prose, intelligent ideas, an excellent view of 19th century English society, years ahead of her time, I will be seeking out more George Eliot. Very highly recommended.
This book is also a story about marriage. We see how Dorothea's marriage turns out - her sister Celia's marriage (Celia is the typical woman of her day), Rosamund's (the spoiled town beauty) marriage, and the marriage prospects of Mary Garth, a poor working girl.
The author helps us to get inside the minds of her characters, which helps us to decide if we like them or not, or if we've made similar choices too. Often I found myself sympathizing with a character I initially disliked, because I was helped to see their emotions.
It's very much a grown up book. If I had read this in my teens I would not have gained as much from the reading. There's no "and they lived happily ever after" here - Eliot keeps the story grounded.
If I had to sum up [Middlemarch], I'd say Eliot gives us an inside view of the lives of women in her day. There's also quite a bit of political talk, helping us see what it must have been like to live in England while so much was starting to change.
For me, this book was just about perfect. One day I'd like to re-read it because I know there are some things I missed this time around.
Ms. Eliot’s “Middlemarch” is a true masterpiece – everything a book should be. It is large in scope, with perfectly developed characters (both major and minor), written with much compassion and keen observations of the times and place, which they inhabited. It is witty and clever, full of subtle commentaries on provincial life in England, the role of women in society, morality, politics, the effects of industrialization on rural communities, and so much more.
In its core, however, Middlemarch is a book about a small town and its inhabitants. As any other town, Middlemarch is populated by all types of characters. Some are good and honorable; others have questionable pasts or motives. Some are shallow and bound by tradition and societal expectations; others are determined to break free and defy those same expectation. Thanks to Eliot’s intelligent and compassionate writing, however, we are allowed to feel the weaknesses of the good and the goodness in the wicked. As the author has so much sympathy for all of her characters, it is difficult for the reader not to sympathize as well.
The book is rich, multilayered, and thought provoking, yet it is very readable. Eliot possessed tremendous psychological insight into human nature and her characters in turn are so real, I kept thinking – I know a Rosamond, or Mrs. Cadwallader sounds just like my old neighbor. For the past several weeks I felt as though I was living in close proximity with those characters and cared deeply about what happened to them. I certainly look forward to re-reading the book and to getting even more out of it the second time around.
Every once in a while, we as readers are rewarded with a reading experience of the highest order and reminded what good literature is all about. Middlemarch was one such experience for me, and as I am not very well read in the classics, it now occupies the number one spot on my list of most loved novels of all time.
The world of Middlemarch is populated by characters with the complexity of planets (they have their own weather systems of cause, continents of pathos) orbited by archetypical small-town satellites (bloviators, horse traders, shrews, useless gentlefolk).
Our fair protagonist, Dorothea Brooke, navigates the treachery of pastoral pre-Victorian England with as much tact and grace as can be possible, pitting her own individuality against the fatiguing winds of her prescribed fate. She defends herself from the inevitable (married, dull, subjugated life) with several sequential fronts: idealistic, self-effacing religiosity; ascetic academic ardor; resigned but noble widow. Of course, none of these withstand because they are false fronts to a personality too deep to be hidden.
The other planets of Middlemarch’s solar system (Eliot would say “web”, but I’ll broker my own metaphor here) are also simultaneously idiosyncratic and stereotypical. Rosamond Lydgate (nee Vincy) is so syrupy and materialistic that one spends much of the time wanting to give her a good wallop, and yet, cracks appear: what other power has she beyond nagging her husband? How can she have any control over her life without deceit? Conflicts like these characterize Eliot’s presentation of the sweeping social changes in 19th-century Britain.
The intrepid explorer of this universe needs patience and a careful eye. Eliot’s phrasing is recursive and deep, with clauses tucking into other clauses and sentences many lines long. References are dense and arcane (to the dismay of readers who might like to think of themselves as well-read); a well-noted edition is recommended (the Penguin Classics series is a good bet). Despite the length (almost 850 pages) and wordiness, be warned: Eliot means what she writes. This is not padding. Every sentence has its place, every description has its meaning.
If you’re paying attention and taking good scientific samples, what you’ll bring back from this expedition is an understanding of a world, frozen in time, and the seismic changes it is about to shudder through. You might understand better how women’s coming emancipation, a newly-enfranchised populace, and a value system redefined to encompass industry and self-made success posed such a monumental threat to the steady, patriarchal aristocracy that had been the center of this universe for so many centuries.
In the small community of Middlemarch, much is happening. Three love stories; one involving a triangle, one a terribly mis-matched couple and one that sounds based on a certain kind of romance novel, involving as it does an irrepressible rake and a strong-minded, but poor girl who works as a companion to dying curmudgeon. There are no less than two wills written in spite, which have long-reaching consequences for the relatives of the dead men. There are a few secrets desperately protected and many impediments to love. The plot is an intricate web of intrigue and misunderstandings, but the real strength of George Eliot's masterpiece lies in how skillfully she draws the personalities of every character in Middlemarch.
Dorothea is a spiritual and passionate young lady living with her sister in her uncle's house. She longs for a Great Work to give her life a purpose and whiles the time away plotting improvements to the lives of the inhabitants of her uncle's estate until she meets the important and self-important scholar, Edward Casaubon. He is older and surprised to have the attention of a young woman, but is eager enough to marry her. Dorothea expects to become his helpmeet in all areas, in order to facilitate his research and writing, but marriage turns out not to be the spiritual meeting of minds that she had anticipated and Casaubon is likewise unsettled by the interruption to his work. Fred Vincy is the only son of a well-to-do family, who was educated at some expense, to enter the church. Fred's a likeable and fun-loving guy, one who is disinclined to become a clergyman. His father is disinclined to give him anymore money however, so Fred will have to find some employment, or at least a way of paying his debts, until he inherits Stone Hall. He has loved from childhood Mary Garth, whose background is not what Fred's family finds acceptable. His sister, Rosamond, is the town beauty. She meets Tertius Lydgate, recently settled in Middlemarch to take over the running of a new hospital, and is smitten. Lydgate enjoys her company, but is consumed with a determination to make a success of himself. He doesn't see himself marrying for some years, but Rosamond has other ideas.
The three relationships form the backbone of Middlemarch, but there are many more stories being told; strands of an intricate web that comes together only in the final pages of the book. Dorothea's uncle becomes involved in politics, and while he is not given to sustained effort, he does have the sense to hire Will Ladislaw, Casaubon's cousin, as an aide and to take charge of a local newspaper. Mr. Bulstrode is prominent in Middlemarch. A religious man, he has founded and is funding a new fever hospital and hires an eager young doctor to put new treatments and medical principles into practice. Bulstrode isn't a popular man and the new doctor, Lydgate, is challenged to build a medical practice when he also works for Bulstrode.
Eliot brilliantly weaves together all the different stories and manages along the way to make each character entirely themselves, from the flawed by impressive Dorothea to the most minor of walk-on parts.
I will state up front that I just loved this book. I approached it expecting to enjoy it, certainly to appreciated it for its classical literary merit, but not necessarily to love it in the way I do some of my favourite more contemporary novels. How wrong I was! I am used to reading classic novels and commenting on their literary merit as if they are a genre apart from their modern counterparts, but what struck me about Middlemarch was how alive and contemporary it was - I raced through to the end empathising and identifying with the characters and situations from my modern perspective. Much has been written about Eliot's depth of characterisation and layered storytelling, about her use of language and development of themes - all undeniably valid. However, what is sometimes missed in these lofty critiques is that Middlemarch is a cracking tale and a great love story. It's one of those rare novels that you live with and are absorbed by so completely and for so long, that on finishing it is as if you have lost a group of friends.
Admittedly, in the beginning it took a while to understand where Eliot was heading with the many different character threads and her somewhat verbose style took a few chapters to get into. If you find this difficult, I can only recommend you stick with it. This book more than returns the favour by the end and I found I whipped through the second half, desperate to find out how it would all end up for my favourites.
Possibly the best demonstration of its pulling power is that the characters grow and develop so much over the course of the novel that I know that I will re-read it sometime in the future because I want to go back to the early sections knowing what I do now about how each individual ends up.
The most worthwhile read I've had in a long, long while and a rare 5 stars from me!
The ending was satisfyingly cheerful to me, though I am glad Eliot still included a bit of tragedy to make it seem realistic. (I hate unrealistic stories almost as much as I hate thoroughly tragic ones.) All in all, Middlemarch was as true a story as fiction, I feel, can ever get.
The prose is dense, and at times incomprehensible to the modern reader. This is the main (and, to my mind, only) drawback to the novel. The headings at the beginning of each chapter, usually written by Eliot herself, are connected in some way to the content of the chapters, though I must confess to paying them little attention as the novel wears on. Reading them, translating them (when necessary), and examining the connections between them and the chapters themselves offers a study unto itself. (Perhaps I'll attempt it next time I read the novel.)
My edition (which came out after the BBC series) has a quotation on the back jacket from Virginia Woolf which reads: "[George Eliot] was one of the first English novelists to discover that men and women think as well as feel..." While I love Jane Austen's pre-marriage odysseys, I also love Eliot's tackling of the bumpy ride of marriage itself.
After 800 pages of thorough exploration of the minds, hearts, and souls of thoroughly human characters, I am still sorry to see it end.
The book is set in the provincial English town of Middlemarch in the early 1800s and it is here that we meet the two central characters, the first being Dorothea Brooke. Dorothea is a beautiful, virtuous young lady whose seeming purity of soul is admired by all those who know her. Dorothea dreams of leading a heroic life and feels she will best attain this by marrying Mr Casaubon - an elderly, stodgy scholar who Dorothea believes is destined for greatness. Dorothea does indeed marry Mr Casaubon, but she soon becomes stifled by his constant study and lack of use for her.
I have to say that I initially disliked Dorothea. I found her almost manic desire to marry Casaubon quite irritating. However, the book soon shows us that despite Dorothea's best laid plans, she is just as misguided and flawed as the rest of us. As a consequence, by the end of the book Dorothea had found her way under my skin and I found myself cheering her on and championing her transformation.
The second dominant character of the book is Tertius Lydgate, a young and ambitious doctor whose affliction for the heroic matches Dorothea's in strength. Lydgate comes to Middlemarch with big plans to change the way medicine is practiced in the region, and early on is very successful. But like Dorothea, Tertius' hasty marriage begins to backfire and his vision soon begins to crumble, as does his life, around him.
Though the book centres around these two characters, it is the support cast that makes this novel so addictive - it has a true sense of community. Whereas Jane Austen is primarily focused on a small number of central characters, Eliot manages to interest us in a whole community of people. We see how the lives of seemingly unimportant characters impact upon the lives of the ones we love, and we see how a community has the uncanny ability to shape people. The narrative is rich, filled with both suspense and drama. It's so delicious, it's almost edible. This is trully one of the best books I have ever read and deserves its' place among the classics.
It was a slow read, and by that I don't mean it was a slog, which is what I usually mean by that. I didn't feel as if the book badly needed an editor--either to cut away massive digressions such as the case in novels by Henry Fielding, Victor Hugo, Leo Tolstoy and Herman Melville or because it read like a rough first draft afflicted with parts that went nowhere or a rushed ending. (Defoe, Melville and Twain, I'm looking at you.) No, this is as well-structured a novel as any I've read. But it is dense--very packed and you can't speed through this prose. This is very much in the Victorian style of novel-writing. Several pages can go without dialogue, and there is a lot devoted to internal thoughts, and at times the narrator intrudes with "I" statements to comment on her characters. I remember Jane Austen, a great favorite, as better in balancing and integrating exposition and scene, more flowing in narrative and prose style and faster paced. Yet, although in lesser hands Eliot's style has aspects I often deplore in others as too "tell, not show," I can't complain of it here; Eliot isn't flabby--she's taut and you feel as if every word and scene was carefully shaped. And I didn't just love the novel, I enjoyed the process of reading it--truly it was a pleasure.
Eliot's characters came alive on the page in a way I rarely find in fiction. I would grow annoyed or irritated or outraged with them as if they were real people I knew. (Believe me, there were plenty of times I would have loved to give Dorothea Brooke or Fred Vincy a good shake.) Her characters are more rounded, more people I can imagine meeting than what I've read in say, Dickens, as vivid as his characters are, they rarely felt as real. And unlike Dickens and many another 19th century author, Eliot in Middlemarch never overstepped into melodrama or treacly sentimentality. Her psychological penetration and insight into character is as profound as in any author I've ever read. She finely depicts the shaping of moral character in critical but seemingly small moments. Middlemarch really has only one out and out villain, a minor character who appears half-way into the novel. Others are more carefully shaded. Bad things happen more because of what characters do to themselves, their foolish choices, than the malice of others. Not that Eliot is gloomy--she isn't a Thomas Hardy--for which, much thanks.
I found not just the moral but spiritual dimension of the novel very interesting. Religion is very important to her characters--but never in a preachy way. I couldn't tell, at least not from Middlemarch, whether Eliot was an orthodox Christian or an atheist. Dorothea is certainly partly a victim of a dream of martyrdom; Fred is pressured to become a clergyman, a career for which he has no vocation; Bulstrode is a narrow religious bigot--but one vicar, Farebrother, is presented as very likable. I couldn't say if Eliot finds religious belief admirable or deplorable. At best I can say I suspect she's sympathetic as to people's spiritual aspirations but wary of how it can be abused. But I just couldn't pin Eliot down that easily: her treatment of the theme is too complicated and subtle.
That said, not all five star ratings are equal--not for me. I admire this book and the writing more than I can express--but I'm not sure that Eliot will ever be the favorite Jane Austen is for me. I cry and laugh with Austen and reading her I feel all is right with the world and am warmed. I could imagine Austen as a friend I could gossip with over tea. Eliot is more... forbidding. This is not to say she is without humor--she often displayed a caustic wit. I don't know that I could say Austen is more good-natured. Eliot judged her characters with an evident compassion. But I didn't fall in love with Eliot's characters the way I have with characters of Austen. Maybe that's what made the difference with me. I can feel for Eliot's characters: I certainly can't say I admire any of them. They're true to life, but not larger than life or in any way heroic or very gifted or even (with the exception of Mary Garth) someone I could imagine wanting as a friend. Mind you, the above criticism feels a mere quibble, my trying to process a complex reading experience and before my memory fades fix my impressions in this review. But I can say it has been years since I've been so impressed with a novel--and I read a lot. I'll definitely be reading more of Eliot in the future and imagine Middlemarch is a novel it will pay to revisit.
By the way, I loved this book. So far it's my favorite George Eliot book. It's also the longest Eliot I've read. There are some obscure vocabulary words, so keep your OED handy. There's quite a cast of characters, so sit down and try to keep track of them.
The main character is Dorothea Brooke, who starts off as a bit abrasive in my opinion, but I warmed up to her as the pages turned. Then there's the idealistic Dr. Lydgate, the fun and kind of silly Mr. Brooke, the seemingly foolish Fred Vincy, among others. The dialogue is humourous a good deal of the time, and the depiction of provincial life is fantastic.
*Almost a Spoiler* - the ending is not as horrendously tragic as the majority of its contemporary novels. Certainly a satisfying chunk of a book
The course of true loves does not run smoothly for any of our three couples, and all three face challenges from outsiders who may or may not be a better match. Eliot had a fine touch for drawing characters; where I started the book by finding Dorothea rather annoying and naïve, I ended it by admiring her incessant desire to do good. And where I started by wanting to slap some common sense into Rosamund, I ended by ... well, wanting to slap some common sense into Rosamund. Not everyone has a conversion on the road to Damascus, you know.
All of the denizens of Middlemarch County are worth getting to know, saints and scoundrels alike. And I still find myself thinking about some of them, and wondering what happened to them after the book ended, although Eliot does do a nice wrap-up at the end by fast-forwarding to show us what the future had to hold for these people we just spent 1,000 pages with. If you can fight your way through the elaborate 19th century language (really the only "fault" I can find with this book) you will be richly rewarded for your time.
I marked so many passages for quotation, but I'll just leave you with just a few:
Sane people did what their neighbors did, so that if any lunatics were at large, one might know and avoid them.
A woman dictates before marriage in order that she may have an appetite for submission afterwards.
To know intense joy without a strong bodily frame, one must have an enthusiastic soul. Mr. Casaubon had never had a strong bodily frame, and his soul was sensitive without being enthusiastic: It was too languid to thrill out of self-consciousness into passionate delight; it went on fluttering in the swampy ground where it was hatched, thinking of its wings and never flying.
A man is seldom ashamed of feeling that he cannot love a woman so well when he sees a certain greatness in her: nature having intended greatness for men.
Now for the meat of the story, spoilers and all...
The main focus of the book is on three separate couples in Middlemarch, but unlike many books, the majority of the story happens after they’re married instead of during the courtship.
First, there’s Dorothea, a young idealistic woman and Edward Casaubon, the scholarly older man she marries. She believes he will do great things and wants to be his helpmate in that process. Unfortunately, he’s not the great man she hoped he would be and she quickly finds herself in a lonely marriage. Then she meets his cousin, Will Ladislaw, and feels an instant connection.
Then there’s the town’s doctor, Tertius Lydgate, who’s bursting at the seams with new ideas for the hospital and experiments to improve the healthcare offered. He falls for the sweet face of Rosamond Vincy and before he knows it, he’s married and she’s spending money faster than he can make it. Rosamond may be beautiful, but she’s also selfish and conniving, always looking for the next angle that will benefit her.
The final couple, Mary Garth and Fred Vincy, tends to be everyone’s favorite. Fred is immature and constantly gets himself into financial troubles. Mary loves him, but refuses to marry him until he gets his life together and finds an occupation that he loves. I loved that Mary wasn’t willing to settle and her decision helped build a happier life for both of them.
The three very different couples show a wide view of marriage. They offer both cautionary tales and sweet love stories. They remind us that you don’t always fall in love with the person you should and that sometimes people aren’t who they seem to be on the surface.
I love classics, but to be honest it usually takes me a little bit it get into them. Once I adjust to the language and get to know the characters, then I’m good to go. This one was completely different. From the first chapter I felt like knew Dorothea Brooks. I didn’t agree with all of her choices or connect to her on every level, but I felt like I “got” her. Her noble aspirations and idealistic nature act as both main strength and weakness. I was rooting for her from the beginning and the final scene between her and Will is one of my absolute favorites.
Sometimes, I felt so involved in Dorthea’s story that it was hard to switch gears and hear about the other people in Middlemarch, like Bulstrode of Dorothea’s sister Celia and her husband, Sir James.
Parts of the story are slow. It’s hard to avoid that when you have 800 pages of provincial life. But I really loved the intricacies of the characters’ lives. Nothing is laid our in black or white. Each character does both good things and bad things, sometimes for the right reasons and sometimes not. Everyone has flaws and makes mistakes. Even our two idealistic heroes (Dorothea and Lydgate) make horrible choices when they pick their spouses. Those flaws make the characters feel very real and relatable, which is what made the book work for me.
So, dig in and be willing to stick with the story, even if it gets slow, and you’ll be rewarded. The story is worth it, but don’t expect quick, constant drama.
"If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel's heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity"
When the story opens, Dorothea Brooks is a young, beautiful girl whose burning passions are narrowly funneled into religious, moral, and intellectual fervor. She has a consuming desire to touch greatness. This leads her to marry the older, intense Casaubon, whom she envisions teaching her, and whom she expects to help in the work that consumes him. Simply, she considers him a great man, and expects to be brushed by his greatness.
Another couple central to the story are Dr. Tertius Lydgate, a practical man of science, and the beautiful, coquettish, spoiled Rosamond Vincy.
Middlemarch seemed to take me ages to read, but I loved it. I did, however, come away with a strong desire to kick a few butts, especially that of Rosamond Vincy Lydgate. I finished this yesterday morning, so I've had some time to reflect abuot why I reacted so stongly to her character. I believe it is because I was very annoyed that her character never seemed to mature much. Her character lacked developement, especially when compared to most of the other characters. I could definitely forgive her for being immature...but it irritates me that she remained that way!
I find it interesting that every character ended up with a life that I found easy to predict. I'm not saying that I was particulary insightful. I think it had more to do with the writing - how fully the characters were fleshed out so that their motives were crystal clear, and it was obvious how they would react in any given situation. There must have been some good foreshadowing as well.
The more I reflect on this book, the more I love it, and the more I appreciate Eliot's genius.
Listen. It's a fine story. There's nothing inherently wrong with it. It's a lovely look at provincial life, full of the drama and romantic tension one expects from 19th century literature. But that's-- all it was to me. It was nothing special, nothing life hanging.
I liked it, sure, but maybe I wasn't in the mood to appreciate it.
I'm glad I read it, but I doubt I'll be picking it up again any time soon.